Musical world traveler rooted in the heartland

The Boston Telegraph, Tuesday, March 2, 1993, Page B-7, Associated Press

NEW YORK - As a musical world traveler, Pat Metheny likes to offer postcardlike glimpses of other cultures from Cambodia to Brazil, but no matter how far he might wander, the guitarist remains rooted in America's heartland.

Though his compositions feature a rich palette of global colors, his music at its core is simple and direct, reflecting Midwestern sensibilities.

When he's playing, Metheny sometimes imagines the sparse landscapes around his boyhood home - Lee's Summit, Mo. - the scattered trees standing out among the flat fields.

"The Midwest has always had an aesthetic effect on me. ... There's a tree and like a quarter of a mile away, there's a lake, and about 500 feet there's another tree," said the shaggy-haired guitarist, who recently ended the U.S. leg of a world tour in New York with a nine-piece band showcasing music from his new album Secret Story.

"When I think about music ... I imagine these landscapes where there's lots of room between things for something to happen and each thing is very clear."

Lee's Summit is only about 30 miles southeast of Kansas City - a town rich in jazz history, the birthplace of both the Count Basie Band and Charlie "Bird" Parker. Although past its prime, Kansas City's still active jazz scene influenced the young Metheny.

"I was very lucky because I got to play with great players at a very young age, and that gave me a head start and I think a kind of rhythmic feel ... that got ingrained in me real early," said the 38-year-old guitarist.

"There was this kind of storytelling aspect of improvising that was really drilled into my head by these older players. The idea each time you play was to tell a story ... rather than just playing a bunch of licks."

In Secret Story, for which Metheny won a Grammy for contemporary jazz performance, Metheny takes his storytelling to epic dimensions. (The album also earned him a Grammy nomination for instrumental composition for The Truth Will Always Be.)

He said the nearly 80-minute album - which involved at least 80 musicians, more than on all his previous albums combined - is the "most ambitious record that I've ever done."

In interviews, Metheny rarely exposes his personal life. But Secret Story is a wordless, abstract tale of his ill-fated relationship with a Brazilian woman. Its narrative shape goes far beyond Metheny's previous attempt at a thematic album - the 1981 As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.

"It's this massive thing, but on the other hand it's probably the most intimate record I've made and definitely the most personal," Metheny said.

"It starts out in a sort of friendly way, this initial period of starting out and learning about someone. And then there is a middle period where things get more involved, and then it sort of starts to change at a certain point, things break down and finally end."

But Metheny said listeners should draw their own impressions about the music.

"To me, one of the best things about instrumental music is that at its best it can function as a mirror to people and they can find in the music lots of different things that I can't even imagine."

For Metheny composing is now equally important to guitar playing. And Secret Story, he considers "a culmination of everything that I've done compositionally," except for straight-ahead jazz.

Metheny began collecting compositions for the album five years ago with two pieces he wrote for the Ballets Jazz de Montreal - Antonia, an implied tango full of stops and starts, and The Truth Will Always Be, a haunting nine-minute ballad that starts softly and steadily builds into a soaring orchestral arrangement before fading out.

Metheny describes the record as a "collage" of things he's picked up over the years. Unlike rap music, which is built upon a rhythmic collage, Metheny said his "musical collages" are more harmonically and melodically based.

He also colors the album with what he calls "little postage stamps" from the musical cultures he's encountered.

The opener Above The Treetops is an adapted Cambodian song with Metheny's lyrical, bluesy guitar heard above the mysterious yet beautiful singing of the Cambodian Royal Palace's women's choir. In the densely textured, Finding and Believing, vocalist Mark Ledford's frenetic version of a chant from India is repeatedly over-dubbed. Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos - a former member of Metheny's band - adds his special rhythmic flavoring to several tunes.

I wanted there to be things that represented the amount of traveling that I've done over the years," Metheny said. "I wanted there to be something to fight against my kind of Midwestern vibe that's sort of in everything. But it still remains a very American sounding record because of the harmonic and aesthetic vocabulary."

Metheny burst onto the music scene at age 19 with vibraphonist Gary Burton's band. He struck out on his own three years later, and has recorded 17 albums under his own name, winning seven Grammys. All along, he has maintained a careful balance between pop-jazz fusion and straight-ahead jazz.

His records include both Song X with avant-garde jazzman Ornette Coleman and the soundtrack to the movie The Falcon and The Snowman, as well as featured appearances on albums by Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and minimalist composer Steve Reich.

The Pat Metheny Group, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last summer, stands on the cutting edge of musical technology and mostly plays Metheny's own compositions.

Keyboard player Lyle Mays has been with Metheny from the start. Bassist Steve Rodby, drummer Paul Wertico and Argentine vocalist Pedro Aznar are all at least 10-year veterans. Brazilian percussionist Armando Marcal is considered the newcomer at seven years. A live album from the groups 1991 European tour is due out this spring.

"I think we've really developed a language and sound of our own that's fairly unique, although a lot of people kind of imitate it," said Metheny, interviewed at his publicist's office in New York.

His manner is casual and unpretentious as is his dress - a gray work shirt and jeans - but he is enthusiastic when talking about his music.

"To me the group is kind of a leap into the unknown because there's no real predecessor for it. We do the thing that's difficult in jazz to pull off of combining a lot of written material with improvisation, which really only exists for the most part in big bands."

Metheny is considered a pioneer in his use of the guitar synthesizer and the Synclavier. Rather than condemn the new technology as some jazz purists do, he has embraced it.

"I've grown up with the technology and it's been very natural for me. My first act as a musician was to plug in the guitar. ... Technology doesn't scare me, I don't see it as anything other than a tool for hopefully good musical results."

Metheny said he's witnessed a technological revolution in music in the 15 years since he formed his band.

"It's like the difference for somebody who grew up with covered wagons and lived to see people land on the moon," he said.

Metheny discovered jazz at age 10 when his brother, Mike, returned home from college with a Miles Davis album. Pat also started out on trumpet.

Thanks to Marc Lensink for this document. On my Pat Metheny Links page you can find a link to his site.

maintained by Thomas Hönisch TOP last update: October 14, 2001